Alumni couple uses philanthropy to support both athletics and academics

Susan Burlingame
February 05, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State alumni Elizabeth “Liz” Bower and Chris Washington, who recently pledged to make two philanthropic gifts to their alma mater totaling $250,000 over five years, believe that both athletics and academics are essential components of a well-rounded educational experience for university students. And in their minds, no university does it better than Penn State.

The couple, who grew up in Montgomery, Pennsylvania, and now reside in Bethesda, Maryland, have known each other since 10th grade. They were high school athletes — and sweethearts — and Penn State was their first-choice school. Washington started life as a West Virginia Mountaineers fan but changed his allegiance as soon as he attended his first football game in Beaver Stadium. Bower said she believed athletics detracted from the academic mission of Penn State until her grandfather, a staunch Penn State fan, helped her realize the important role football and athletics in general played in supporting the academic enterprise of the University.

Marriage came after both had graduated from Penn State — Bower in 1997 with a history degree and Washington in 1998 with a degree in communications — and Bower had finished law school. She became a partner in the litigation department of Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, an international law firm, and Washington worked in the hospitality business for Hilton and Doubletree before, in his words, “retiring” to be a stay-at-home dad to the couple’s two daughters, now ages 11 and 8.

“Chris and I both have backgrounds in athletics, and we also feel very strongly about supporting academic programs, so we thought it made sense to combine both of those aspects when supporting Penn State,” said Bower. In March 2019, the couple committed $125,000 to the Penn State Men’s Basketball Facility Enhancement Fund.

“As members of the Nittany Lion Club, Liz and I were able to take a tour of the basketball facility,” said Washington, who served as manager of the men’s basketball team while at Penn State. “We could see there was a need for some updating in relation to some of our competitors in the Big Ten conference, so we decided to help. It’s great to be a part of the renaissance of Penn State basketball.”

“Liz and Chris love their alma mater, and their gift shows their commitment to help the program reach new heights,” said Penn State men’s basketball coach Patrick Chambers. “A dedicated member of the team as a manager, Chris has a passion for Nittany Lion basketball that continues to this day. His experiences with the program had an impact on him, and now he and Liz are giving back, and their generosity will have an impact on our success.”

Just a few months later, in December 2019, the couple made another gift, this time for academics. With a $125,000 pledge, they established the Elizabeth J. Bower and J. Chris Washington Study Abroad Endowment in the College of the Liberal Arts with first preference for students studying history.

“Both Chris and I grew up in a pretty homogeneous, middle-class community,” explained Bower, adding that neither she nor Washington were able to study abroad due to finances. “Opportunities for travel were very limited, which was fairly normal at the time, but it’s just not acceptable any more with the way the world works. Exposure to other people, other cultures and other ways of life through study abroad is critically important today. The fact that such an important part of a student’s growth and development is not available to so many students because of financial constraints just doesn’t seem right.”

“In my view, studying abroad is the single most important thing a student can do during their time in college,” said Michael Kulikowski, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History and Classics and head of the Department of History. “No matter where you go, it will open your eyes to the fact that people do and see things differently elsewhere and that diversity and cultural difference are hugely productive things. You come back to the U.S. and to Penn State with a whole new sense of vision, so we’re particularly glad that Liz and Chris have helped us make study abroad more affordable for all our students. It’s great when young, dynamic and successful alumni share our vision and help us realize it.”

The couple credits Penn State with providing the solid foundation upon which they built a successful life — one that ultimately helped them become philanthropic.

“Philanthropy was always a part of our plan,” said Bower. “My parents instilled in me from a very young age the importance of helping in any way you can, whether that’s community involvement or financial support. Given my hard work and the opportunities I received, I knew I would eventually be in a sufficiently secure financial position. Recognizing how difficult it was for me and for Chris to afford our education, it was important to take some of that financial success and pave the road for others.” Bower also is a very active volunteer for the College of the Liberal Arts, serving most recently as a panelist for the college’s Penn State Women: Leaders of Today and Tomorrow program and also participating in the Alumni Mentor Program.

“I grew up in a single parent household,” added Washington. “My mother and I received a lot of assistance from the government and from family, when I was young, so the need to help people, and experiencing the happiness that comes from helping people, are pretty powerful. We knew that if we were ever in a position to help others, we would.”

The couple said they hope students who benefit from their philanthropy will think about the opportunities they have been given and take full advantage.

“I also hope that 10 or 20 years down the road, students will think about what they can do for people coming after them,” concluded Bower. “I want them to remember their experience and apply it to their own philanthropy someday.”

Both of the couple’s gifts — to renovate the basketball facility and provide students with financial support to study abroad — help to advance "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With support from devoted philanthropists who believe in Penn State and its mission, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.

Last Updated February 10, 2020